Saturday, December 27, 2008

As the year comes to a close, and entertainment writers sum up recent celebrity deaths, they quickly update their lists with recent passings like Eartha Kitt and that Johnny Cakes guy from The Sopranos. With so much bad news to mention, some fail to include (Entertainment Weekly) and others will mostly likely remember (The Academy Awards next year) one in particular of interest to me -- Nina Foch, who died a few weeks ago.

Most news articles talk about Nina Foch's acting career -- her film work was primarily done in the '40s and '50s. You might remember her from The Ten Commandments or An American in Paris. She also got a Supporting Oscar nomination for Executive Suite. Maybe you caught some of her TV work later on... or scattered appearances later in life. The last one I knew of was a bit part in 1993's Sliver as a real estate agent showing a condo to Sharon Stone. Nina Foch's name came up in recent years because of the popularity of "Inside the Actor's Studio" -- she was once married to James Lipton. (Maybe it didn't work out 'cause he didn't kiss up to her as much as every actor he's met since then, I dunno...)

But I remember Nina. She taught "Directing the Actor", a required class for the graduate screenwriting program. The two years I spent in film school, being new to LA and all, I don't remember much. I could barely tell you the difference between an F-stop and B-story, between mise en scene and denouement. But as anyone who's been in Nina Foch's class can tell you, it's just something you never forget.

Nina was the equivalent of a film school drill sergeant. Loud, caustic, and often despised. Well, I don't know if anyone necessarily despised her, but ask any student of her class and they'd all say, "Oh, Nina hated me."

There was a good reason for that perception. Nina picked on everyone. And she was brutal. Students were forced to act out scenes and receive scathing criticism from our irascible instructor, which wasn't always about one's performance. I recall her telling someone he had "an unhappy body". A woman with a cute nose was warned it would soon droop along with her breasts. I believe she told me I was "the biggest fucking pain in the ass" in the entire class.

There was a lot of big crass statements coming out of this little old lady. Sexual tension in a scene was described as "There's an erect penis between these two!"

Some believe that Nina became so abrasive to set herself apart from the sweet starlets of her time. Others suspected a certain bitterness, based on things she revealed about herself in class. She'd often grumble that she wasn't as attractive as the Rita Hayworths and Liz Taylors and Ava Gardners of her day.

Still, for us film school students, she was notorious. At the end of our first year, we had a party with an award ceremony, honoring achievements in our mostly god-awful student films. I won Best Documentary for my short on Sergio Aragon├ęs, which I'd feel proud of, but there were a million categories, kinda like an Everyone-Gets-a-Trophy Day. And our awards were called the Ninas.

I remember telling Ms. Foch, who honored us by attending the Ninas, "You know what? I really learned a lot in your class." She responded with something glib and cantankerous, like, I should hope so, or way to go, genius, I'm glad they don't pay me to blow smoke outta my ass.

I expected such a retort, but I really hadn't foreseen how much I would mean what I had said. Nina's class was about directing and acting, but really, it was essential for the writer. We learned how to break down every line of dialogue, every moment in a script to its basic action or intention. It may seem basic but after all our analysis and practice back then, I find now that if I'm struggling with something creative to go back to Nina's teachings. Some of the articles that came out after her death cited all her former students who became prominent in entertainment, thanks in part to Film Field Marshal Foch.

You resent your drill sergeant during bootcamp, but you're thankful for the harsh training when you're stuck in the trenches.

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